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Civil asset forfeiture - or how the state can take your property

Some people are who are arrested for drug crimes in Georgia find they have more than a criminal case to worry about. Under Georgia's civil asset forfeiture law, they can also lose their vehicle, their money and other assets.

Civil asset forfeiture is a money-maker for police departments in Georgia and other states. The law is designed to deprive criminals of the profits of criminal activities. In many states, however, the person must at least be convicted of a crime before his or her assets can be taken away. In Georgia, that is not the case.

When can the state take my property?

In Georgia, a law enforcement officer who suspects that your money or property is the result of selling drugs, the state can take it before you are convicted. Local police departments can keep 100 percent of seized assets. This provides local law enforcements departments a powerful incentive to seize money, as well as other assets that can be sold.

Local police departments seize millions of dollars in cash and other assets each year. It is a risk faced not only by drug dealers but also innocent people who prefer to deal in cash. Suppose a police officer stops your vehicle and finds $10,000 in cash. If the police officer suspects you made the money by selling drugs, he or she can take the $10,000 under our state's civil forfeiture law-even if you are not convicted of any crime.

In Georgia, the burden of proof required to take your property is "preponderance of evidence," which is a lower standard of proof than is used in criminal cases. Basically, it means the chance the money is from criminal activity is above 50 percent.

Can I get my property back?

If you lose property through civil asset forfeiture, you may get your property back. However, you would have to prove that the money was not the result of a criminal enterprise. In other words, you would have to prove that you are innocent rather than the state prove you are guilty.

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